This is a new web series on this website — every week, on Monday, I hope to post a short review to a book that I’ve read in the previous few weeks. Some of them are older books, or read on paper; some are newer works that I’ve read digitally. Some are political or economic tracts; some are fiction, some are related to my work in design and teaching design. Previous entries are here and here and here.
by Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbis Books/Hachette, published 2016
ISBN 978-0-316-37874-1 Orbit. Kindle Edition.
One of the tropes of science fiction is the generation ship — stuff a few hundred humans into a spacecraft, send them off in the direction of another star at as large a fraction of the speed of light that you can muster, and then let them breed and renew their numbers over several generations until they reach their destination. The gleaming ships become pitted and lightly damaged over the centuries of travel through interstellar space — but they arrive. The humans emerge from their trans-abyssal womb onto the surface of a new world, and begin the colonization. The migration accomplished, the Great Deep crossed, and the process that occurred on Earth begins again, on another world, say a planet or a moon in orbit around Tau Ceti.
This is Kim Stanley Robinson’s world, though, and the master of the modern ‘hard science’ does a deep dive into all the challenges and opportunities that this kind of centuries-long voyage might take. As the book opens, the end of the journey from our solar system to Tau Ceti nears. But there are things that are going wrong, things that the original mission planners have not taken into consideration. The ship has no official chief engineer, either — just a woman whose penchant and skill at fixing things, and assembling teams to fix things, is better than most other people. Nor is there a captain, exactly; nor is the information coming out of the communications stream from Earth coherent or useful — the homeworld still sends information, but no-one is listening back home to the questions from the population aboard the Ship. They are on their own.
Children are exposed to the idea that they are on board a ship in various ways. Some always grow up knowing they live in giant habitats strapped to the sides of a space ship. Others are brought up in ignorance, kept away from the edges of their biomes, or from windows in the ship’s spine; then put in a spacesuit with a blackened visor, brought outside onto the hull at an appropriate age, and exposed to the wonders of the cosmos blinking by at 0.2 of c. Some handle the dislocation well; others… not so much. The generations have undermined the standard ideas of the hierarchy of command, and different rules apply. And it’s less and less clear if anyone is in charge.
A variety of things are wrong. The bacteria on board evolve faster than the plants, who evolve faster than the mammals. Each successive generation is somewhat dumber than the one before. Learning disabilities are appearing among the population on board, and strange allergies emerge. People are shorter than in their great-grandparents’ day.
Freya, a girl, belongs to the latest generation aboard Ship. Her mother is Devi — not the ship’s chief engineer, but the person everyone calls when something important breaks. Her father Badim is a fun-loving guy, but Devi is angry all the time. And why wouldn’t she be? The intellectual and physical resources necessary to solve the problems of Ship are always in short supply: when the 3D printers break, that make all the replacement parts, how does one repair them?
It would be easy to write this as a science-fiction story about physics, and the story would be dull. Yet the human problem, and the human experience, is never far from Robinson’s thoughts or writing. How do people react to this kind of situation, where someone must farm, and someone must manage the cattle and sheep, and someone must weave… and someone must keep the spaceship going?? How are children raised, how are political decisions made, how do people find their place abroad Ship, how does Ship tell its own story? What does history look like, sociology, anthropology? What are the human stories?
Robinson, as usual, tells the human stories very well. I was riveted, and stayed up until three in the morning to finish reading one night. In the morning, well-satisfied with Robinson’s vision that he shared with us, I went outside, and kissed the frozen ground.